Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Literary Singularities": a few words on M. John Harrison's 'Light'

“Information might be a substance.  Can you imagine that?”

~M. John Harrison, Light

            Can you imagine that?

            M. John Harrison’s Light is yet another example of recent science fiction literature that subverts the expectations of the genre.  It centers around three characters who never actually meet in the course of the narrative: the first is Michael Kearney, who, with his colleague Brian Tate, is a researcher in the field of theoretical physics whose recent work is beginning to expose some strange anomalies (oh yes, and Kearney is also a serial killer in his spare time).

            The second is Ed Chianese, better known in the novel as Chinese Ed.  Ed used to be an “entradista”; a space explorer who ran risky payloads and such through indeterminate regions of space.  However, the novel takes place after Ed’s heyday, depicting him living the remainder of his life in a state of stasis where he indulges in dream-like fantasies; of course, this idyllic world of sloth and sluggishness is about to come to a violent end.

            Finally, we have Seria Mau Genlicher, a K-ship pilot who has been cybernetically altered so as to be (literally) a part of her vessel.

            Kearney’s plot takes place in 1999; Ed’s and Seria’s both take place in 2400.  Across this broad temporal scope, Harrison gives us a glimpse into an ingeniously envisioned and immaculately constructed world.  This strange setting (for even Kearney’s 1999 plotline is ripe with oddities, particularly the serial murderer’s haunting visions of the mysterious Shrander) revolves around an even stranger center – central absence would be more appropriate.  Just before the novel’s halfway point, Harrison describes the anomaly of the Kefahuchi Tract, the enigmatic singularity at the story’s core:

This object was massively energetic.  It was surrounded by gas clouds heated to 50,000 degrees Kelvin.  It was pumping out jets and spumes of stuff both baryonic and non-baryonic.  Its gravitational effects could be detected, if faintly, at the Core.  It was, as one commentator put it: “a place that had already been old by the time the first great quasars began to burn across the across the early universe in the unimaginable dark.”  Whatever it was, it had turned the Tract around it into a region of black holes, huge natural accelerators and junk matter – a broth of space, time, and heaving event horizons; an unpredictable ocean of radiant energy, of deep light.  Anything could happen there, where natural law, if there had ever been such a thing, was held in suspension. (Harrison 183)

            Rather than attempt an exhaustive analysis of the entire novel, or performing a hodge-podge of different plot points and characters, I would really like to focus on who I believe is the most interesting character and his place in the novel: Michael Kearney.  However, this is not to say the other characters are not interesting.  If any of my readers choose to pick up Light at some point, simply make sure you read the passage concerning Seria Mau’s “binding” to her K-ship; if this description does not strike something ineffable in your core, then I doubt you have truly understood what you read:

They strap you down and give you a rubber gag to bite on.  The way is cleared for the shadow operators, running on a nanomech substrate at the submicrometre level, which soon begin to take your sympathetic nervous system to pieces.  They flush the rubbish out continually through the colon.  They pump you with a white paste of ten-micrometre-range factories which will farm exotic proteins and monitor your internal indicators.  They core you at four points down the spine […] (Harrison 337).

And that’s not all; believe me, it gets worse.  It is one of the most relentlessly inhuman processes I’ve ever seen imagined in fiction, and this is why I find the work so riveting.  As far as Kearney goes, I’m mostly interested in him because of his diegetic position at the opposite end of most of the narrative action.  Kearney’s plot takes place in 1999, more than ten years in our past even, and incorporates elements that might better befit a horror story than a science fiction novel.

            Kearney is haunted by visions of a mysterious being he calls the Shrander.  He describes it, at one point, to his ex-wife Anna Kearney: “‘Try and imagine,’ he had once said to Anna, ‘something like a horse’s skull.  Not a horse’s head,’ he had cautioned her, ‘but its skull […] Imagine,’ he had told her, ‘a wicked, intelligent, purposeless-looking thing which apparently cannot speak.  A few ribbons or strips of flesh dangle and flutter from it.  Even the shadow of that is more than you can bear to see’” (113).  Without ruining the surprise, we can say that the Shrander constitutes a horrific enigma for Kearney.  While it certainly materializes in a more crystallized form later in the novel, for most of the narrative the Shrander is a speechless, ominous presence that somehow drives Kearney’s mad desire to kill.

            Kearney has also come into the possession of a pair of dice, purportedly from the Shrander itself.  I want to share the description of these dice as well:

Despite their colour they were neither ivory nor bone.  But each face had an even craquelure of faint fine lines, and in the past this had led Kearney to think they might be made of porcelain.  They might have been porcelain.  They might have been ancient.  In the end they seemed neither.  Their weight, their solidity in the hand, had reminded him from time to time of poker dice, and of the counters used in the Chinese game of mah-jong.  Each face featured a deeply incised symbol.  These symbols were coloured.  (Some of the colours, particularly the blues and reds, always seemed too bright given the ambient illumination.  Others seemed too dim.)  They were unreadable.  He thought they came from a pictographic alphabet.  He thought they were the symbols of a numerical system.  He thought that from time to time they had changed between one cast and another, as if the results of a throw affected the system itself.  In the end, he did not know what to think. (163-4)

I might also mention that this is possibly one of the few examples of fine literature that manages to incorporate the word “craquelure”.  And a bit further down:

Over the years Kearney had seen pi in the symbols.  He had seen Planck’s constants.  He had seen a model of the Fibonacci sequence.  He had seen what he thought was a code for the arrangement of hydrogen bonds in the primitive protein molecules of the autocatalytic set. / Every time he picked them up, he knew as little as he had the first time.  Every day he started new. (164)

Rules and systems for categorization break down.  The dice are perhaps the most obvious example of an object in the narrative that refutes any attempt to define them.  Analogous to these strange, porcelain-like objects is the enigmatic Kefahuchi Tract; yet this warped fabric of space-time is also, in some ways, inverted.  The Kefahuchi Tract is not a place where the laws of physics stop working, but a place where law becomes illimitable, and hence ceases to be “law” at all:

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory.  All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions.  You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.  If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with – if you had to catch a wave – that didn’t preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing the same tranche of empty space.  It was even possible to build drives on the basis of superstring-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago, had never really worked at all. (182)

We are given a glimpse of this in Kearney’s narrative, within the laboratory that he and colleague Brian Tate.  In one scene, when Kearney visits Tate, he finds that his partner has barricaded himself in the lab, apparently afraid not that something will get in, but that something might get out.  When asked about their research, Tate replies: “‘We had q-bits that survived a whole fucking minute before interference set in.  That’s like a million years down there.  That’s like the indeterminacy principle is just suspended” (280).  The indeterminacy principle, of course, is Werner Heisenberg’s famous maxim which proposes that there is an epistemological limit on our ability to know certain pairs of physical properties of a particle at the same moment: when one property is measured, another inevitably changes, and it is impossible to know the exact measurement of both properties at once.

            What we are being shown in Harrison’s brilliant sci-fi narrative is the structural importance of what I playfully call “literary singularities”.  It’s worth mentioning that Ken MacLeod, another contemporary sci-fi writer, actually called Light a “literary singularity”.[i]  MacLeod intends this in a kind of critical-generic fashion, which certainly suits the novel; however, by “literary singularity” I mean that Harrison is actually manipulating certain structural points within the narrative – points that have traditionally been governed by what Fredric Jameson theorized as the “unknowability thesis” – where representation and expression fail.  The laws of physics might be described as a method whereby human subjects represent reality to themselves, and theoretical quandaries such as black holes and time travel are points where these laws no longer hold any water; the representational model fails.  Light is critically aware of this failure; these scientific forms figure in the text as analogous singularities: both gravitational and textual.  The anomalies of science and the natural world achieve the status of effectual narrative components, perhaps the most important narrative components.

            I’m skeptical, however, of Jameson’s dialectical model of unknowability or inexpressibility within a Marxist hermeneutical framework, although I’ve expressed my fondness for this model in previous posts (namely, my post on science fiction and historicism).  While I admit that Jameson’s method is not only theoretically rigorous but also one of the most influential approaches to literary theory in the past half-century, I want to stress that the dialectic poses problems for critics.  Perhaps most problematic is the dialectic's tendency to succumb to causal reasoning; since dialectical thought establishes antinomies that function in a structural relationship to one another, and these antinomies eventually must be reconciled (the Hegelian Aufhebung), dialectical method necessarily gravitates toward a determined telos.  Anything and everything can be subsumed by the dialectical method, which thereby insists that the total field of phenomena somehow conceals a dialectic substance.  Thus, Hegel could claim that History is, essentially, dialectical.

            The issue thus becomes separating the theoretical practice from the inherent nature of things.  We can interpret a text dialectically, but we must be cautious to avoid attributing a dialectical essence to the object on which our method fixates.  This is a major problem with much dialectical thought: while it takes texts as its objects, it doesn’t stop here but continues on to claim that the historical movement and conditions wherein phenomena might be witnessed (literary genres, class conflict, scientific development, etc.) is also dialectical.  But if current science and philosophy has revealed anything to us, it is the obliteration of teleology and idealism; history has no governing essence that necessitates one logical conclusion.  The laws of history and culture, like those of physics in the deep regions of space, fail; and if Light demonstrates anything, it is that in the wake of these failures possibility becomes infinite.

            The term “singularity” here has a very important definition that I should clarify before continuing.  I intend this term not in what is perhaps its most immediate sense: something that is singular, although this is certainly a component of what I intend.  The appropriate definition in this context is most closely linked to the use of the term in general relativity: a gravitational singularity, otherwise known as a black hole, an anomaly of space-time so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational center.  Because of this extreme density, everything in a black hole collapses into an infinitesimally small point: a singularity.  Theoretically, black holes are also demarcated by mathematical limits known as event horizons (here, readers might be reminded of Paul W.S. Anderson’s cinematic sci-fi cult classic about a spaceship that mysteriously returns from the depths of space after vanishing some years prior).

            The event horizon is the truly intriguing structural component of a black hole that enables it as a metaphor for what I am deeming “literary singularities” in Harrison’s novel.  The event horizon marks the limit beyond which nothing (not even light) can escape the gravitational grip of the black hole.  Once something crosses this boundary, it will gradually be pulled toward the singularity and broken down atom by atom.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains:

If you stumbled upon a black hole and found yourself falling feet-first toward its center, then as you got closer, the black hole’s force of gravity would grow astronomically.  Curiously, you would not feel this force at all because, like anything in free fall, you are weightless.  What you do feel, however, is something far more sinister.  While you fall, the black hole’s force of gravity at your two feet, they being closer to the black hole’s center, accelerates them faster than does the weaker force of gravity at your head.  The difference between the two is known officially as the tidal force, which grows precipitously as you draw nearer to the black hole’s center […] Your body would stay whole until the instant the tidal force exceeded your body’s molecular bonds […] That’s the gory moment when your body snaps into two segments, breaking apart at your midsection.  Upon falling further, the difference in gravity continues to grow, and each of your two body segments snaps into two segments.  Shortly thereafter, those segments each snap into two segments of their own, and so forth and so forth, bifurcating your body into an ever-increasing number of parts. (Tyson 284)

Furthermore, Tyson goes on to explain, you would also “extrude through the fabric of space and time, like toothpaste squeezed through a tube” (285).  All in all, not a pleasant way to die, provided you were wearing a sealed suit and hadn’t already succumbed from exposure to vacuum.  Space, as Tyson describes and Harrison reminds us in Light, is an inhospitable place.

            The most interesting factor concerning the event horizon is its appearance to an outside observer.  Human beings require light to see, but since light cannot escape a black hole once it’s crossed the event horizon, humans cannot actually “see” a black hole (hence the painfully obvious nomination).  What happens, then, when an object traverses the theoretical boundary of the event horizon?  Rather than simply disappearing to an outside observer, the object instead would appear to tumble eternally toward the event horizon, always nearing the point of no return, but never actually crossing it (think of an asymptote, a curve which approaches the line of a graph without ever actually touching it).  Likewise, if a subject traversed the event horizon, the moment of crossing would be mathematically calculable, but invisible; there would be no discernible visible difference.

            Since information itself cannot escape a black hole, any method of representation fails.  While mathematics and quantum physics can point us toward knowledge of a black hole’s existence, they cannot explain what a black hole is.  Descriptions of black holes as collapsed stars whose masses and densities have reached such extremes that not even light can escape their gravity helps us understand how a black hole comes to be, but doesn’t explain (again) what it is.  Most immediately, all we can say about black holes is that they are nothing; but nothing cannot exert the devastating forces that gravitational singularities exert on the observable universe.

            Can it?

            In Light, the Kefahuchi Tract is an observable, or naked, singularity.  It is a singularity without an event horizon, thus allowing observers to visibly witness it (theories do exist for naked singularities in current science, but none have been discovered).  However, even visibility doesn’t permit answers for Harrison’s readers.  If the singularity of the Kefahuchi Tract is visible, it is radically illogical.  The Kefahuchi Tract – and the universe in general – becomes, in Harrison’s literary vision, a site where anything is possible: “[Humans] wondered why the universe, which seemed so harsh on top, was underneath so pliable.  Anything worked.  Wherever you looked, you found.  They were hoping to find out why” (Harrison 182).  The Kefahuchi Tract is even more affronting than a black hole because it makes the absence of logicality visible.

            If the laws of physics do not hold for Harrison, neither do the laws of literature; and this makes Light an artistic masterpiece in my opinion.  If temporal processes break down, how can a narrative be traditionally represented?  This is not a problem for Harrison, who leaps back and forth between 1999 and 2400 seamlessly, although the two begin to bleed into one another in the presence of the strange substance that leaks from Kearney’s and Tate’s computer monitors.  This leads me to the quote with which I opened this post: “Information might be a substance.  Can you imagine that?” (Harrison 357).  To which I then asked: can you?  Harrison certainly does.

            One of the most enigmatic features of black hole research is known as the “information paradox”, which suggests that black holes destroy physical information once they consume it.  This seems strange on first glance, since information often appears intangible – as something known, but not something that is.  Does material contain information?  Or is information projected, internalized, and represented by observing subjects?  Harrison’s delicious romp through space and time posits a universe wherein information exists on an entirely different scale, as something physical, tangible, and perhaps even biological.  I would refrain from claiming that there is any conclusion to Light; I don’t think it attempts any conclusion.  It embraces an environment and narrative structure where a wealth of information proliferates, but remains incalculable to the human sciences.  Light accepts a universe where (just as in our reality) researchers and scholars posit theories and hypotheses by which to navigate space-time; but the novel exposes these theories to a harsh and capricious non-totality where anything seems to work.  This in turn invites the following question: what happens if things stop working?

            If information is a substance, a substrate, to the universe in Light, then the Kefahuchi Tract is a window into its non- and pre-human ontology.  It does not conform to epistemological structures; or, if it does, it conforms to all of them.  Rather than a void, an unobservable absence that consumes light and information, the Kefahuchi Tract is observable; rather than consuming physical laws to the point that nothing functions, it deconstructs the limits of physical possibility.  Causal reasoning faces its greatest challenge.  The problem of induction first posed by David Hume suddenly surges to the forefront.  Viewed in this light (an unavoidable pun), the narrative universe almost seems to take on an abstractly benign quality.  There is no doubt that Light is a violent story, but behind the three narrative strains lurks something of a unifying thread.  I would not go so far as to claim that Harrison believes our universe to be inherently benign.  That would grant far too much anthropomorphism to its being.  There is, however, far more to it than what is visible.

[i] This reference is from the collection of excerpted critical praise at the beginning of Light.
Works Cited
Harrison, M John. Light. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007. Print.
Tyson, Neil DeGrasse. Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.,
2007. Print.